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While the Wellcome Library is closed for the Christmas holiday (23 December 2013 to 1 January 2014), the shepherds — bit players in the drama of the Nativity — receive top billing on the Wellcome Library blog. A look at how they are represented in prints also illustrates the extent of Henry S. Wellcome’s activity as an iconographic collector, as all the items discussed here were acquired by him.
In the Nativity story the shepherds have no names, unlike the Magi, who have had names since the Middle Ages (in the West: Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior). The shepherds’ anonymity goes with their humble station, which in turn resonates with the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth. The appearance of an angel in the night sky could happen to anybody: worldly status is irrelevant.
In this engraving by Jan Sadeler (above), the shepherds are sleeping, being alarmed from sleep, or trying to stay awake in the darkness when the angel descends in that burst of light that permits us to see the scene: in the words of Saint Luke, “Lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.”
Although the shepherds are simply shepherds, the method of depiction is itself far from simple. In the first place, the nocturnal scene could only be convincingly recreated through engraving techniques of sophisticated artistry, not through the cruder methods of popular woodcuts. Second, the lettering above is in the Latin of the Vulgate, unlikely to be legible by real 16th-century shepherds: “Ecce enim evangelizo vobis gaudium magnum” (“For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy”). And the dedication below, carefully centred, is to a nobleman: Count Agostino de’ Giusti, a grandee of the city of Verona in which the engraver Sadeler was then living, and whose elegant palace presumably included the painting of the shepherds by Bassano. The contrast between the simplicity of the subject and the subtlety of the medium is a recurring feature of documents on this subject.
One problem for artists was to link the shepherds out in the fields with the great event taking place in Bethlehem. The shepherds themselves were outside the town, as is shown by their saying “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem” (Luke II.15). In the composition of the Nazarene Josef von Führich (1800-1876), a Bohemian painter active in Rome and Austria, the viewer could simultaneously be present at the Nativity and see the shepherds receiving their annunciation in the distance.
The two scenes are brought closer by the fact that the nativity takes place in a natural or quarried stone cave rather than in an urban building.
Looking in the other direction, from the country towards the city, one could show the shepherds being led by the angel towards the Messiah. This is the subject of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s rather confusing composition painted as a model for a window in New College Oxford (below).
Here the angel was not shown because it was further over to the right, above the nativity itself. In this print, the shepherds (including a self-portrait of Sir Joshua on the right) are looking up at nothing, though the unseen angel’s effulgence is manifested through the light descending from the upper right. Again, there is the contrast of high and low: Sir Joshua shows the dirty sole of his bare foot, implying an uncouth peasant, but he is walking past the base of a Roman column such as might appear in one of his grand portraits.
The print above by Marinus van der Goes exemplifies the contrasts. The engraving by Marinus is very delicate and sensitive while the subjects included by the painter Jacob Jordaens are selected for their everyday banality, such as plaster peeling off brickwork, a hoe, and a hen in a basket. The Latin lettering refers to the bowl of gruel which one of the shepherds offers to Christ, and to the reed pipe played by a younger shepherd, but in the high-flown allegorical style of Roman epic: “He who feeds the citizens of Olympus with nectar and ambrosia, behold he feeds on the cheap food of shepherds. He whom the council of the gods sings with epic voice, him the rustic muse sings with a meagre sound”. It appears to refer to Jesus as the provisioner and hero of the pagan gods!
In the etching above, the shepherds are kept apart from the Holy Family by a post in the form of a gnarled tree trunk. It is a scene of high animation, with the shepherds rushing in from the left with their lambs. This strange composition seems to have been the last work of the great Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) before he slumped into depression, ceased to work and met an early death.
The Wellcome Library has a collection of crib figures made of ivory, probably from Goa or the Philippines. It would be difficult for the sculptor to show the same degree of animation as Annibale Carracci, hence the carved shepherds are shown sleeping on an eminence while their sheep clamber its sides. The Virgin Mary and a couple of Magi are shown on the left.
In an essentially decorative composition, the elements of the story can be dispersed to fit a pattern. Below is a Danish popular print is the form of a border designed to be overprinted (or perhaps inscribed by hand) with a prayer or greeting — even today it could serve as a Christmas card.
The shepherds are distributed either side of a curved pediment at the top: the angel stands in the centre, and the shepherd on the far left throws up his hands in alarm as he is wakened from sleep.
However for narrative effect the elements are grouped in one composition, as in the magnificent mezzotint by Elisha Kirkall (1682?-1742) shown below.
The mezzotint technique itself supplies the nocturnal darkness: unlike line engraving, mezzotint has blackness as a default to which the grey and white areas are created as exceptions. The shepherds are seen in the right background receiving the good tidings from the angel, and again in the abandoned palace or temple in which the Holy Family have taken up lodging. The building has Corinthian columns, an indicator of grandeur, but is in ruins, hence suitable for a lowly birth. The scene is illuminated by no candles, only by the radiance of the Christ Child.
The shepherds’ role in the story ends when the magi arrive, but their vocation is not forgotten: the shepherds out in the fields anticipate Christ’s metaphorical role as the Good Shepherd, with humanity as his vulnerable flock (John, 10: 1-17). In that role he is portrayed as a real shepherd, bringing the story full circle.
The Wellcome Library wishes all users of the Library, near and far, a happy Christmas.
Author: William Schupbach